Pets are an important part of our lives & families, quickly filling a place in our hearts and our picture frames! However, taking pictures of your best friend is not always easy. Pets, unlike humans, do not understand what we are trying to do and won’t just pose for the camera (most of the time)! Check out our tips below for the perfect pet portraits!
Use natural light
Good lighting is everything in photography, especially in pet photography where it’s critical to be able to see the catchlights in the pet’s eyes (the white reflective parts). Avoid photographing in dark rooms or under heavily overcast days. Bright, yet diffused light is the easiest to create flattering pet portraits under, so take a look around your subject’s environment and determine where the best light is located. If possible, use natural light when taking pictures of your pet. Using a flash can not only cause red-eye, but may also frighten the animal. Instead, try to go outside or in a room well-lit by a large window. Also, try to avoid using flash with animals that live in tanks, because the glass will reflect the flash, making an unsightly white hotspot. This also is true with metal cages, because even dull metal will look white under the beam.
Go to them
It is very important that your pet feels comfortable and at ease; so instead of forcing them to come to you, go to them. Also, make sure you get down to their level. We all know how a dog looks when viewed from above, so try to capture the way they see world. Sit on the floor or lie on your stomach and remember to shoot from their eye level or below. For a Great Dane their world may be the height of your hips; for a Chihuahua it may be all the way down at the level of your ankles. For a cat lounging on a cat tree, you may need to pull out a step stool to get on their level. Practice “shooting from the hip” to place the camera in their world without having to crouch or kneel if they are on the ground. Lying on the ground usually prevents the use of a tripod, so to keep the camera steady, you may use a camera bean bag or a sturdy book as support. To help reduce camera shake, make sure to take a deep breath before you take the shot. For the blurred background effect, choose a shallow depth of field (f/2.8 – f/8) and a fast shutter speed since pets can move fast! Shutter speeds of 1/400 and faster when you are outdoors is a good bet.
Give value to their character
You know your pet better than anyone else, and a successful picture is one that conveys the character of its subject. If you have a lazy cat, show it yawning. If your animal is playful, show it in action performing their favorite trick. The eyes are the most expressive part of an animal’s face, so if you want to create really engaging portraits, focus on the eyes and facial expressions. A well-timed puppy whine (from you) can reel in focus in a puppy or curious dog, and have them staring straight at the camera. It’s also a good idea to photograph pets in their preferred spots or enjoying a much-loved pastime such napping on the porch or catching a Frisbee.
Try using a long lens and fill the frame with your pet’s face and fur. Close up shots often make beautiful animal portrait.
One of the most difficult things is having your pet hold still. An easy trick is to let them play quietly and – once you have everything ready – let someone call for them or whistle. This will surprise them and catch their attention. Plus, you will have a few seconds to capture your pet in a nice, alert posture.
Schedule your session
If you want a formal pet portrait, try to schedule the photo session when you’re animal is somewhat sleepy or has just woke up; it will be much easier to keep them still. If you want a more dynamic shot, pick a time when your pet is energetic.
Get rid of clutter
Before you pull your camera out of your bag, take a look around your shooting location and get rid of clutter and distracting objects first. Do you really want to see that empty coffee cup on your table in the photos of your cat? Is the garden hose snaking through the grass where you are photographing your dog? Simply move them aside so you don’t have to remove them in post-production later.
Pet photography requires a lot of patience. No matter how excited your furry friend is, if you are patient enough, they will end up relaxing and you will have the opportunity to get a great shot. Take your time and enjoy the session, try different approaches, angles and compositions. Animals are emotional sponges, and if you are stressed and anxious, they will sense it and become stressed and anxious too. A stressed animal will give you “concerned eyes”, which doesn’t translate well on-camera. Take a deep breath and remember to have fun with it!
Be flexible… literally
If you have ever watched a professional pet photographer in action, you will notice that they bend and twist and turn and crouch and crawl – whatever it takes to get the shot. Be prepared to get those muscles working in order to get the perfect composition. Sometimes all it takes for a dog to break their sit-stay is for you to go from sitting to standing. It’s better to reach and lean than make a large movement that will cause the pet to move from their perfect pose.
Pay your model
Every animal needs to have some sort of motivation to pay attention to you during the shoot, otherwise they may wander off and become disinterested. Determine what they are motivated by and provide it to them throughout your shoot. For dogs, it may be treats, toys or simply getting love and affection. For cats, it may be a feather toy, a paper bag, catnip or a bite of tuna. For horses, it may be their favorite food such as carrots or apples. Get creative when it comes to “rewarding” your models and they will reward you with great shots and be more cooperative too!
Create a concept/shot list
The most engaging animal imagery shows them in context. It may be a cat looking up at an owner opening a bag of food in the kitchen, a dog looking longingly through a front door waiting for their buddy to come home or a horse owner with their arms wrapped around the equine’s neck. If you can say something with your images, they will speak to your viewers on a deeper emotional level.
Try communicating with the pets the way they do each other – nonverbally. Use hand signals or point to invite them over (for example, use the sit hand signal for dogs that understand it). If you do need to say ‘sit’, say it quietly and calmly only once or twice. Avoid saying the pet’s name, because the more times they hear it during a photo shoot, the more inclined they are to tune it out. The less talking and “commanding” you do, the better the shoot will be.
Learn to move slowly around them while taking their pictures. This is especially important with cats, who are prone to either radically change the expression on their face and ears at your slight movements, or leave the scene altogether. This is also true of dogs that are in a sit or lay-stay position. When you shift position, they’ll sense you are off on a new adventure and will want to follow you. If you need to move, and you don’t want your model to move, do so very slowly without making any eye contact. And remember to reach, bend and lean.
Freeze the Action
Because your pet will be moving quickly and you want to make sure the photos are free from blur, turn the mode dial to TV or S (Shutter Priority) mode so you can control how you freeze the action. Set the focus mode to continuous focusing (AI Servo AF for Canon/AF-C for Nikon) so that the lens can constantly maintain its focus on the running pet. For multiple shots, use continuous shooting mode and hold down the shutter button as long as you’d like to help you catch that perfect moment.
Aim for the Eyes
Use a standard lens (50mm) or a zoom lens that covers the 28-70mm lengths. Turn the mode dial to AV (Aperture Priority) mode and select a wide aperture for a blurred background. Use spot metering, focus on the eyes, and avoid flash for a softer look.
Pets can provide a range of interesting photographs, from cute to dramatic. Use toys and treats to reward them if they are behaving well and let them leave if they are bored of having their photograph taken. Feeding an animal first is always a good idea, as it leaves them relaxed. If your pet is going outside make sure you have another person helping in case they break free. Just make sure you & your pet have fun documenting your relationship; they are an important part of the family and will love spending time with you… yes, even cats!